JTA, student bodies back call for removal of taxes on digital devices
The Jamaica Teachers Association (JTA) has thrown its full support behind a call by several leading private sector organisations for the Government to remove all duties and taxes on devices such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones in a bid to increase online access to the most vulnerable students in the society, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, both the president of the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) Guild of Students, Sujae Boswell and President of the University of Technology’s (UTech) Jamaica Students’ Union, Kahlil Hutchinson, have offered their conditional support for the removal of duties on the electronic devices.
Among the influential groups making the call are the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce, the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association, the Business Process Outsourcing Industry of Jamaica, the Council of Voluntary and Social Services and the MSME Alliance. Specifically, they want the Common External Tariff (CET) and General Consumption Tax (GCT) removed from such devices for at least two years although they have pointed to Caricom neighbor Trinidad and Tobago, which has removed all duties without setting a timeline as to how long the measure will last.
The influential grouping has argued that with the education of Jamaica’s children, which was largely moved online because of the spike in cases of the coronavirus on the island, being of paramount importance, everything must be done to increase access to the thousands of students who are still without a device that will allow them to continue their learning.
“A call like this was made earlier and we supported it. The Jamaica Teachers Association is fully on board, we are in full support of a call of this nature,” Jasford Gabriel, JTA president, told Loop News.
“I believe it’s a sacrifice that is worth making and the truth is that by this time, those persons who are able to afford devices would have already procured the devices and so the ones who are most vulnerable in terms of the financial capabilities and their circumstances are the ones that are without devices,” Gabriel added.
Gabriel... this is a matter of urgency.
The original date for the reopening of schools was pushed back from September 7 to October 5 when Jamaica started to experience a sharp rise in COVID-19 infections and deaths. A decision was taken belatedly by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information to move classes online after groups such as the JTA resisted face-to-face interaction between teachers and students out of concern for its most vulnerable members with comorbidities which make them more susceptible to COVID-19.
Gabriel said it was critical that the matter be addressed with urgency “Given that digital learning is so crucial now, so fundamental to the way forward and positioning our students for the 21st century. I believe this is a matter of urgency and I believe that it makes good sense for it to happen within the shortest possible time”.
Gabriel said he understands the hit to the national budget if the duties on the devices were to be removed, especially with the fallout from the COVID-19 crisis already impacting the budget negatively.
However, he said not doing anything could prove far more devastating in the long-run.
“One part of it absolutely is a budgetary decision but I believe that we can do it if we really want. It’s a matter of what we make priorities among our different options, how we choose as a nation. When we invest in the education of our youngsters you understand that we are also investing in terms of our future economic capabilities and our advancement as a nation, both socially and intellectually and so you can’t put a price tag on that,” the JTA president argued.
He noted also that Jamaicans would have seen over the years, “decisions to spend big money on things that we could argue are of less import than this one and so this is a decision that I think we need to make”.
Apart from forcing schools online, the COVID-19 crisis has also forced many Jamaicans to work from home.
The private sector groups, in making their call for the removal of duties, argued that it would level the playing field, especially as it relates to the thousands of students who are without devices such as laptops, tablets or mobile phones and as such are falling behind in their lessons since classes were largely moved online following the belated reopening of schools on October 5.
“Our call is...an urgent response to the acceleration of the COVID-19 pandemic locally. The global pandemic has made Internet connectivity as critical to modern life as electricity and water,” the group said in a joint statement. “Without connectivity, in this time of COVID, schools across the island are being forced to reopen digitally without the means for their students to learn in that format. Digital devices have now become indispensable, and we need to address, with urgency, the inequality in connectivity. Those who can afford it will already have purchased the equipment they need for the new school year, if not long before, leaving the rest behind,” the statement added.
Meanwhile, Boswell, the UWI Guild president, in an interview with Loop News, said “There is a digital divide that we cannot continue to ignore and this has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I understand the government’s perspective when it comes on to revenue loss because the government’s coffers have obviously taken a hit as well because of this pandemic. It’s a reality that students do not have widespread access (to digital devices) but we also are appreciative of the fact that the government has to manage the economic cost that can come from not having those taxes as well so maybe they don’t want to take that wholesale approach,” Boswell reasoned.
In lieu of an across the board concession that is being touted, Boswell has proposed that centres be established in schools and that the National Education Trust (NET) be brought on board. He explained that the schools and the NET would be used as access points “and you would therefore have the ability to track what’s happening so it’s not just a free-for-all, something that maybe the government is trying to prevent”.
Tianna Thompson of Alpha Primary School participates in a class exercise via a smartphone device at the start of the new academic year earlier this month.
“If they don’t want to necessarily go the route of removing the tariff (for all), a strategy they could use is to utilise the school networks. So where a student is interested in getting a tablet or getting a laptop, they could actually go to the school and the school would make the order on their behalf. NET could also be utlised in this way to ensure that only persons needing the benefit would get it,” Boswell added.
For his part, Hutchinson, representing UTech’s Students’ Union, said he understands the call for the removal of the duties in light of the situation that has resulted from students being forced online as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. He conceded that a lowering or removal of the duties would make the devices more accessible and affordable to those needing them.
However, like his UWI counterpart, Hutchinson is also mindful of the effect of such a move on the government’s revenues.
“It has positives in particular for education and especially at this time but I would love to do my full research on the matter because you know where there are positives there are also negatives,” Hutchinson told Loop News.
He pointed to Tuesday’s announcement by Prime Minister Andrew Holness of the $2 billion in damage to the road infrastructure caused by recent heavy rains associated with Tropical Storm Zeta as a strain on the already stretched budget. Holness told the House of Representatives that the figure was preliminary and would likely rise sharply. He also said the money would have to be found from the existing budget by way of reallocations.
Nonetheless, Hutchinson said it is something he would support “Just for the fact that the prices would be cheaper for persons to access tablets for educational purposes”.
While the Jamaican Government appears tentative to remove/reduce the duties with an eye firmly fixed on its already reduced revenues due to the coronavirus crisis, the private sector groups pointed out that in the Trinidad case, PriceWaterhouse Trinidad noted that while relief is normally addressed outside the tax regime, in this instance, “immediate relief is critical in a time of crisis”. The measure, it said, also “alleviates the administrative and logistical burden of reaching all vulnerable ones in our society”.